One problem I have when reading about the ancient world, a problem I suspect that many others have, is that it’s hard to remember that multiple major events were happening concurrently. For example, while Rome was waging war with Carthage, a key event for the Roman Republic, wars of conquest were happening across Alexander’s former empire; Alexander died only 60 or so years before the First Punic War!
For me, that problem stems from (incorrectly) viewing each great empire as following the one before it. The Persians succeeded the Egyptians and Assyrians, the Greeks bickered amongst each other and fought the Peloponnesian War while the Persians were great, Alexander caused the utter collapse of the Persian Empire and his succeeded it, and finally, the Romans created the greatest empire the Mediterranean world had yet seen.
But, of course, that linear view of history is incorrect. The Bronze Age Greeks were powerful at the same time as Egypt, the Romans had been around for centuries before Alexander marched to the Indus, and the transition between Greek and Roman power is nowhere near as a linear view might make it seem.
All of that is to say that, when reading ancient history, books that contextualize the timing of events help to paint a fuller, more vivid world. One such book is Age of Conquests: The Greek World from Alexander to Hadrian by Angelos Chaniotis.
Summary of Age of Conquests by Angelos Chaniotis
In Age of Conquests, Chaniotis covers the history of the Hellenistic world, which he defines as existing from the time of Alexander to the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The battles, the culture, the politics of the larger world, all of it is included to show the general state of affairs in the Mediterranean world at the time, albeit with a general focus on Greece and Alexander’s former empire rather than the Mediterranean as a whole.
For those who don’t know, after Alexander died his generals fought over the remnants of his empire. Although those wars and successor empires gradually settled into four main territories, the wars continued on and off until the Romans or other, outside empires, such as the Parthians, conquered the area. This period of constant warfare and schemed spawned such famous men as Pyrrhus of Epirus and dynasties like the Ptolemaic dynasty, of which Cleopatra was the final important member.
Chaniotis, in Age of Conquests, takes the reader on a step by step, mostly chronological journey through that world.
Logically, he begins with the campaigns of Alexander and shows how Alexander’s conquests changed the ancient world.
From there he transitions into the reigns of the “Successors,” the former generals of Alexander that built their own kingdoms out of the ashes of his empire. Although their fortunes rose and fell over time, no one successor was ever able to gain an insurmountable lead and recreate an empire with the scope of Alexander’s.
Some in the east recreated his march to India, winning much fame and fortune in the process, the Ptolemies built a fabulously wealthy kingdom in Egypt, and rulers in Macedon maintained control over the formerly powerful Greek city-states, but none were able to take complete control. But that was not without trying, both by scheming in courts and waging vicious battles on fields that dot North Africa, Greece, and Arabia; those battles lasted for over a hundred years.
As the Successors waged war on each other, Rome rose in the west. The Hellenistic world gradually declined, especially in Asia and Egypt, under the strain of foreign invasion and war, giving Rome an opening to take over, which it did. The most famous territories of Alexander, Macedon, Greece, and Egypt, gradually fell to the Roman Republic, which also succeeded in establishing control over many of Alexander and the Successor’s former dominions in Asia Minor.
After overpowering the Greek world, taking control of formerly powerful states for various reasons, Rome settled in to rule. But the exchange was not one-way. Various emperors, notably Nero, were entranced with Greek culture and many elements of Hellenistic culture filtered back to the eternal city.
Chaniotis excellently describes that process in Age of Conquests in a way that is detailed and engaging.
Once his telling of the history of the Hellenistic world is over, Chaniotis describes various other aspects of that world. The economic changes that time wrought, social and cultural trends in the centuries-long time of Hellenistic prominence, and even religion are all described in-depth. While the focus of the book is history, especially military history, the depiction of the general cultural and economic trends of the time allows Chaniotis to more fully describe to the read what the world he writes about was like.
Armies can only march if their stomach is full and only wage war enthusiastically if the wars fit with their cultural values, so knowing how the economies of the time fueled them and the cultural values of glory, honor, and ambition fit with military conquest helps the reader understand the why of what happened rather than just the what.
My Take on Age of Conquests by Angelos Chaniotis
Overall, I thought that Age of Conquests was terrific.
For one, the level of detail that Chaniotis goes into about the world of the time, especially the deeds and eccentricities of the various important men involved, it incredible. Although I knew a bit about Alexander and Pyrrhus from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and a bit more about the Romans mentioned, especially Augustus and Hadrian, I knew little about the others mentioned. The Ptolemies, especially, were almost unknown to me and I found learning about them to be highly interesting and an important aspect of learning about the Hellenistic world.
Additionally, his decision to write about everything, rather than just a few of the most famous events, was, I think, an excellent one. History is made by more than just the couple of names that the general public knows. Most know Alexander defeated the Persians, Pyrrhus won “Pyrrhic” victories over the Romans, and that the Romans gradually overpowered the Greeks. But, for example, do you know why Pyrrhus was forced to flee his home before eventually becoming king? Do you know why the world at the time allowed him to be, in effect, a mercenary king that fought all over Hellas and Italy? If not, you’ll learn from Age of Conquests. If you do, you’ll also learn so much more.
And that’s what’s so great about Age of Conquests; it’s only a littler under 400 pages, which is quite short when you consider the multiple centuries in which the events in it take place, but you’ll learn an incredible amount about the history and culture of the Hellenistic world, along with what trends and men shaped it.
There is, however, one downside of Age of Conquests; it’s quite dense. At no point, I’d like to note, is it boring. To me, at least, learning about ancient battles, the deeds of great men, and the cultural values that steeled men to fight hand to hand in blood-soaked fields is always interesting. But, Chaniotis is a professor of ancient history at Princeton, not a novelist or storyteller. His description of the world, especially in the chapters about the economy, culture, and religions of the time, are a bit dense and can be hard to get through. The downside of learning so much in so few pages is that it can take a bit of time to grind through each page.
But that downside is, I think, almost entirely outweighed by the magnificence of what Chaniotis accomplished in writing Age of Conquests. I knew very little about Greece and the Greek world between the time of Alexander and its takeover by Rome. Next to nothing, in fact. After reading this book, I know quite a bit about it; the military tactics of each Successor kingdom, how their fortunes changed over time, why Alexander’s empire didn’t hold together, etc. can be learned about in Age of Conquests, along with much more. That’s an impressive accomplishment for Chaniotis and it makes his book well worth your time.
So, for the question that ends every book review of mine, should you read Age of Conquests?
Although I greatly enjoyed reading the book, I’ll have to say “it depends” for this one. That’s not because I disliked it in any way, but rather because of how dense it can be, at times. So, if you enjoy reading about history and want to learn more about a fantastically interesting period of history, this is a book that you should certainly read. However, if you’re not a strong reader and/or aren’t that interested in the Hellenistic world, you probably wouldn’t enjoy reading it. I can only hope that far more people reading this fall in the former rather than latter camp.